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Paul Roselli has worn many hats in his life: documentary filmmaker, environmental activist, land steward; he’s even worked stints in corporate America and university relations. Now he wants to add the title Governor of Rhode Island to that list. Prior to announcing his candidacy last September, Roselli was best known as a leading opponent of the fracked gas power plant in Burrillville, where Roselli runs a local land trust. The Democratic challenger to Gov. Gina Raimondo says his decision to enter the race was initially inspired by his disappointment in Raimondo’s “arrogant” and disingenuous response to the concerns of Burrillville activists opposed to the power plant and her acceptance of campaign contributions connected to Invenergy, the Chicago-based company behind the project. But, Roselli says, his message has since broadened, and his goal is to fix Rhode Island’s transportation, healthcare, economic and environmental challenges through a “holistic” approach no longer stuck in the 1940s.
When Roselli and I sat down recently to discuss his campaign, we began by talking about Gov. Raimondo’s focus on building the state’s military-based economy, including her awarding of millions of dollars in subsidies to nuclear-armed submarine maker Electric Boat, a division of General Dynamics, a Fortune 100 company and one of the nation’s largest Pentagon contractors. Below is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.
NUNES: Do you think it’s a good thing that we’ll be having jobs based around building nuclear-armed submarines?
ROSELLI: I think everybody’s excited about it because of the jobs, and I think that’s the only reason. I think what we have to do is break that down to what it actually means for Rhode Islanders. How does it translate into where we see our future in Rhode Island? And I don’t think it’s the right future. I don’t mind people going to work in the defense industry. It seems like an appropriate thing for a government to do. But: when you’re banking on it, it doesn’t help the state at all. It may give us a little more taxes, put some food on the table. But, in terms of moving forward, it does absolutely nothing for the state.
I liken something like that—where there’s a high profile project, you’ve got congressional support, the governor is beating the drum—to going back to the 1940s or 1930s. That’s that mentality. The mentality that we have to rely on the production of fossil fuels for electricity. We have to put an LNG facility in Fields Point [in Providence]. We have to create these sacrifice zones of pollution. That’s a 1930s, 1940s mode. I reject that outright. It’s an out outdated, outmoded, unnecessary way of dealing with creating an economy and getting an economy moving forward.
It’s time that we get ourselves out of the 1930s and bring ourselves to the 21st Century. The 21st Century is: education, healthcare, transportation, dealing with our fossil fuel infrastructure, dealing with how we produce electricity, and what government does to take care of our citizens. Those are the areas where we can put people to work and help Rhode Island.
NUNES: Do you think building nuclear-armed submarines is immoral?
ROSELLI: Absolutely it’s morally wrong. We have to make those kinds of connections. People need jobs. It’s morally wrong, but they need jobs. So let’s invest in some of those industries that really make Rhode Island better.
NUNES: Gov. Raimondo says these jobs are low-hanging fruit. We’re getting money from the Pentagon. It’s going to pay for these weapons. Why not get people ready for these jobs?
ROSELLI: I want to go for higher [fruit]. I want to train doctors and nurses. I want to solve the transportation issues in our little state. It’s insane that in order to go from eastern Cranston to western Cranston you have to take an hour-and-a-half [bus ride]. For a lot of people working one or two jobs that’s an incredible waste of their time and energy, and they don’t make any money when they sit on a bus for an hour, hour-and-a-half. Solving the transportation problem could put a lot of people to work. Let’s increase RIPTA. Let’s maybe coordinate with Uber or Lyft or create our own [ridesharing program]. It’s not low-hanging fruit, but that involves software engineers, managers, entrepreneurs, capital from the state.
NUNES: I’ve always thought: Rhode Island is the smallest state; it’s densely populated. It should be a leader in public transportation.
ROSELLI: It should be a no-brainer. It should be the low-hanging fruit. But it’s probably one of the worst places for public transportation. RIPTA has these set routes [that inefficiently force riders to go to the central hub in Providence].
NUNES: How would you improve RIPTA?
ROSELLI: I think RIPTA [funding] should be increased. We should have free bus rides for the elderly [or a nominal fare]. And I think we need to start thinking about how people move and what they want. They want on demand. They want to go from Point A to Point B without having to go to Point C first. Something like Lyft or Uber is a great idea, or develop our own system. And I’m a firm believer in making a cooperative arrangement with corporations. I’m not a fan of giveaway programs, but something that improves people’s lives is a noble and worthy way for the state to encourage a small business to get going, get going well, and be sustainable after three to five years.
NUNES: Would you subsidize Amtrak travel in the state?
NUNES: With transportation I think you need to have better options for people, but you also have to make it harder for them to use their car: a higher gasoline tax, more tolls.
ROSELLI: Like in European countries?
NUNES: Yes. Would you do that?
ROSELLI: I’m not big fan of the tolls that are being placed on the truckers.
NUNES: But what if you did it to everyone?
ROSELLI: We already do that. We have a car tax and a gasoline tax. How many more do you want to pay?
NUNES: The idea is you have to disincentivize using a car to get people using public transportation. You want people who could own a car to use public transportation, so you have to make owning a car less appealing.
ROSELLI: Well, if you’ve ever tried parking in Providence, you know it’s less appealing. I think giving people more options will get more people using public transportation. If other options are viable, cost-effective, and on demand, the natural thing to do would be to use that service.
NUNES: And a statewide Uber system?
ROSELLI: Yeah. And I’ve been toying with the numbers and looking at just what that means. If there are some initial incentives from the state, that could help. It should be state subsidized.
NUNES: Would that hurt taxi drivers?
ROSELLI: We don’t have a big taxi service in Rhode Island. I don’t think it would hurt a large industry. It’s not like New York where you have tens of thousands of cabbies.
NUNES: I heard from someone I now who tried being an Uber driver that it’s a very hard way to make a living.
ROSELLI: I’m not sure you can make a living out of it, but you can sure make some extra income. If we can put a request for proposal out there, provide a service, and give people some incentive to use it, why not?
NUNES: When it comes to economic development, it sounds like you’re interested in developing entire sectors rather than focusing on one specific company and attracting them here with incentives [like Gov. Raimondo].
ROSELLI: I think someone in that position has to have a holistic approach to how the state works. So, here’s my train of thought: The biggest air polluter is cars. So that’s the transportation issue. That’s also the environmental issue. That’s also the healthcare issue. All those have to be looked at together, in my mind, because that’s how you can make government work really well. If you think of individual sectors, then you’re always looking at the next little piece of the puzzle instead of looking at the whole picture. I want a holistic approach and not waiting for the next Amazon or Wal Mart or Urban Greens or Amgen to come knocking at our door.
NUNES: I’m skeptical when I hear an official or candidate say, “I’m the jobs candidate; I’m going to get you a job.” It seems opportunistic. When you talk about fixing the problems in a state, making a state a better place to live, and fixing these holistic issues, that’s more likely to have a long-term effect. I’m skeptical of someone who comes in and says, “I’m going to attract x number of businesses and y number of people are going to have jobs.”
ROSELLI: It’s quick fix and promotional. They’re looking for a photo op. My background is in land preservation, so I have to think long-term. I can’t think in terms of next year, two years from now. I’ve got to think of 50, 100 years from now. That might sound crazy, but it’s very, very true. I’m president of the Burrillville Land Trust. We own 214 acres of land. Each of those parcels that we acquire—we immediately start thinking long-term. How to protect it, how to manage it, how to deal with soils, rivers, climate change, bug infestation. I feel I’m really well qualified to look at a state that should be sustainable. These quick band-aid approaches, giving up millions of dollars to corporations that come here for a few years. If we’re darn lucky, these places are going to provide 20 or 30 jobs for people who are here. Most likely not. Most likely these corporations are going to bring in their own people. I don’t look for the photo op. I don’t look for the quick fix. I think there’s a wealth of an economy to be made from looking long-term.
NUNES: Can you give me the brief synopsis of your background?
ROSELLI: I’m probably one of the few individuals who have brought this power plant issue to being a statewide issue.
NUNES: What did you do before that?
ROSELLI: I’m a documentary filmmaker. I’ve traveled a lot of the globe working on projects that deal with a lot of healthcare issues, agriculture, climate change, war generals, ancient cultures, indigenous people. Sometimes I’m behind the camera; sometimes I’m in the edit suite; sometimes I write. I’ve been doing it for 30 years. I’ve also worked a lot in corporate America. I worked for CVS, Coca Cola. I worked for a lot of the nonprofits, a lot of educational institutions like University of Pennsylvania, and Drexel University. I worked at Brown University in university relations for 10 years. I’m currently working for the University of Massachusetts. That will end in June, and then from June to September, I’m going to dedicate 90 hours a week to running for governor. Right now I’m at about 55 hours a week. We have to ramp it up.
So, what made me run? I’ve been fighting the power plant for the last three years. In August 2015, Invenergy came to Rhode Island, held a press conference, and said, “We’re going to build a billion dollar power plant in the northwest corner of Rhode Island.” And Gov. Raimondo said—I remember these exact words: “We’ll do everything we can to make sure you’re successful here.” A year-and-a-half ago, I was on my way to Chicago to attend a conference. Before I went to Chicago, I heard the governor also went to Chicago for a fundraising event. The guy hosting the event was the CEO Michael Polsky of Invenergy, the same folks who are building the power plant. Then I saw online at the Board of Elections website, two checks of a thousand dollars from Michael Polsky to Gov. Raimondo. I thought: “What the heck is going on here?” I looked at the dates [on the donations] and this was right around the time the governor came to Burrillville [to speak to opponents] and said, “I want to listen. If there are some issues with the power plant, it will never be built.” I thought: How arrogant? How absolutely arrogant to say that in front of about 800 people in the auditorium?
Come to find out, while the governor was there [in Chicago], she got more [donations]. I thought: “That’s it. I’m done. I’m done opposing this as a voice in the wilderness—quite literally. I’m going to face her in some type of political arena.” So last year, September 2017, I threw the proverbial hat into the ring, and I said, “I’m going to run against her.” That was then. And since then with the UHIP debacle, DCYF, the pension craziness, and these issues with these giveaway programs—I said, those are my issues along with the environment and the fossil fuel industry. And here I am.
NUNES: I mentioned [before our interview] I’ve done reporting for The Providence Journal, Rhode Island Public Radio, and other news organizations in the region. Have you gotten much coverage from those places?
ROSELLI: A little bit on NPR. It’s been a lot of the smaller newspapers. A lot of radio stations on AM and FM. I haven’t done any long interviews on NPR. I’ve been on GoLocal a lot. I did the Pat Ford show [on GoLocal] for a couple of hours.
NUNES: It seems to me like other people get more attention.
ROSELLI: Yeah, Matt Brown. He came out of nowhere after disappearing, and he gets more media coverage than I have, and I’ve been around the state doing grass roots campaigns for the last 15 years. More recognizable name, whatever that means.
We have a plan. There’s a campaign manager. There’s a volunteer force of about 17. I have a couple of strategy people. One on social media. One on branding and marketing. The plan is for as much media coverage as possible everyday: press releases, Twitter feeds. I have a lot of catching up to do because I’m only known for one thing, the environmental side, and people peg me as someone who’s either hugging trees or fighting the power plant. I hope you’ve discovered that I’m a lot more, and I want to come across as a lot more.
I don’t want to be shy about the environment. Absolutely not. I want to talk about that. I want to talk about the power plant. I want to talk about the LNG facility. I want to talk about the transportation issues, because no one’s going to talk about transportation issues. I want to be that candidate that people can look at and say, “That guy’s got a holistic approach.He’s looking at it from a wider lens than these band-aid approaches, these poor uses of taxpayer money, these individual projects.” I want to be known as the guy who’s not stuck in the 1930s.
NUNES: Single-payer health insurance?
ROSELLI: Bring it on. Absolutely. I’m 65. I’m on Medicare—love it. Everyone should be on Medicare.
NUNES: The reproductive rights bill [that codifies Roe v. Wade protections in Rhode Island]?
ROSELLI: I’m in favor of that 100 percent.
Alex Nunes is an independent journalist based in Rhode Island. He has contributed reporting to NPR, Rhode Island Public Radio, The Providence Journal, and The Day of New London, Conn., among other news organizations. He holds a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and a bachelor’s in sociology from Rhode Island College.
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